Answering the Call: Lessons Learned Opening an Emergency Birth Center in a Pandemic

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Where is the safest place to give birth? This question was just one of many brought to the forefront of American health care discussions in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for community-based, rapidly evolving healthcare solutions, and a birth center team in New York City answered the call.

In New York, the initial epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, the terror of entering a hospital was real, OB units were critically understaffed, and support people were banned from the birth space. Families scrambled to find a physically and emotionally safe way to give birth.  To address consumer demand and the practical necessity for alternatives to hospital-based care, the governor of New York put emergency executive orders into place that removed long-standing barriers to opening new healthcare facilities, specifically birth centers. Prior to 2020, only one freestanding birth center had managed to become licensed and accredited in all of New York City: Brooklyn Birthing Center (BBC). BBC was founded in 1999 by Dr. Norma Veridiano after seven years of effort. The lifting of bureaucratic restrictions during the pandemic allowed the BBC team to take one step closer to their decades-long dream of a birth center in every borough of New York City. With the help of midwives from all over the United States and a grant from the New York-based nonprofit Every Mother Counts, BBC opened the Jazz Birth Center of Manhattan in a matter of weeks.

A youth hostel was transformed into a birthing space. A team of midwives converged on Manhattan from far and wide and dove into training and setting up a safe place to work, sleep, eat, and catch babies. Personal protective equipment was purchased, donated, and crafted when necessary. They received 50 calls daily from desperate pregnant mothers and their loved ones. Families received care. A birth center was born.

The experience of opening Jazz Birth Center became a lesson on what makes community-based midwifery both successful and essential in the American maternal healthcare landscape. Opening a birth center while navigating an unprecedented national health crisis set the stage for an impressive array of creative solutions to problems, and plenty of fascinating stories.

As the leaders of Jazz moved through the stages of planning and implementation, key questions came to light:

  • What makes the midwifery and birth center models of care attractive to the general population?
  • How do midwives and birth centers reach into a new community and connect with key individuals and groups, such as:
    • Prospective clients,
    • Maternal health leaders including doulas and support organizations, and
    • Referral and collaboration partners?
  • What is required to train an effective team of midwives?
  • What barriers exist to launching a new midwifery practice or birth center, and how does a team of midwives, physicians, and administrators overcome them?
  • How does community-based midwifery affect health equity, and how do we ensure this effect is positive?
  • How does a birth center specifically meet the need for rapid response to change, and how do we get more birth centers into more communities?

We invite you to join us at the upcoming ACNM 66th Annual Meeting, held virtually May 23-25, 2021, to learn how the midwives at Jazz Birth Center answered these questions and how lessons can be taken from this adventure into other midwifery practices, diverse communities, and broader advocacy activities.

Written by Jessica Henman, MSN, CNM, CPM

Annual Meeting presentation will be given by:

Amy Romano, MBA, MSN, CNM

Amy is an experienced healthcare leader focused on clinical innovation, patient engagement, and community-integrated care. With a clinical background as a nurse-midwife, Amy founded the consulting company Primary Maternity Care to reshape U.S. maternity care and improve outcomes, equity, safety, and costs. Amy has been published numerous times including books, journals, and the popular blog, “Midwifing the System”.

Jessica Henman, MSN, CNM, CPM

Jessica has been active in the birthing community for 20 years, working internationally in humanitarian aid, teaching at various levels, serving on professional and nonprofit boards, and founding the only licensed and accredited birth center in Missouri. Jessica is the president of the Missouri Affiliate of ACNM and has served as the Midwifery Director of Brooklyn Birthing Center and Jazz Birth Center of Manhattan since June 2020.